Ethan Elkind’s Railtown – How Planning, Engineering and Mostly Politics Shape L.A. Rail

Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City, published by UC Press, 2014

The UC Berkeley Faculty Club meeting room was packed on Tuesday evening with people who came to hear Ethan Elkind talk about his book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.

Elkind, who holds a joint appointment as Climate Policy Associate at the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools, entertained the crowd with a wry, rapid-fire summary of some of the complex political forces that quite literally shaped the current and future Metro system.

Like many contemporary cities, L.A. originally grew along streetcar lines. Then, as cars became more ubiquitous, it spread out into interstitial areas and beyond, becoming an “endless expanse of subdivisions.” A map of the oversized extent of Los Angeles County (“the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined….Why does Delaware get to be a state?”) gave an idea of the vast areas overseen by only five county supervisors, with huge and varied constituencies. The mottled shape of the city of LA showed the relatively minor power base of its mayor.

Federal money for transit helped start the conversation. “If the city could put up 20% of the cost of building an urban rail system,” said Elkind, “then the federal government would pay 80%–this was a very enticing deal.” Terrible air quality and bad congestion added to a general frustration with the existing transportation in LA, helping set the stage for rail.

He showed a slide with an overhead photo of the city (“That photo cost me some money,” he said—which is why Streetsblog didn’t post it here). It showed an endless cityscape, and jutting up were tall buildings clearly outlining the Wilshire Boulevard corridor.

“If you’re going to build rail,” said Elkind, “This is where you should do it, along the most densely populated corridor in the western U.S.”

But other interests intervened, and the Blue Line to Long Beach became the first route, “on the bones of the old streetcar network,” taking the same route as the last remnant line of the old streetcars, which shut down in 1961.

The second route, the Green Line, was built on a transit right of way in the center of the Century freeway, located there due to a lawsuit against the freeway. Because the right of way was already set up, the route was cheap and convenient. Also, it was argued that it could serve the aerospace industry in the western marsh below LAX.

But the Green Line didn’t go to the airport. And with the end of the cold war, the aerospace industry collapsed.

Meanwhile efforts to get a line through the most heavily populated areas were diverted by politicians who wanted—or didn’t want—rail through their districts. At one point Elkind showed a slide of an early route plan for the Red Line subway, calling it “Wounded Knee” because the line curved up from Wilshire through downtown, bending in a tight curve in an effort to hit all the important spots.

Then came the methane explosion in 1985 on Fairfax, and those who feared more methane leaks joined forces with those who feared gentrification and almost brought the whole subway to a halt.

Elkind discussed the personalities at play, including US Representative Henry Waxman, who at first seemed supportive of rail but then pulled his support after the methane explosions, Mayor Tom Bradley, who “accidentally” promised the groundbreaking of a subway within eighteen months of taking office (he was only off by about twenty years), and Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who wanted to see the old streetcar system revived in a renewed Los Angeles.

He touched on construction problems, including the sensational ones: the tunnel fire under the Hollywood Freeway and the sinkhole that almost ate Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Regarding these, Elkind gave this valuable advice: If ever you are appointed to a transportation agency or commission, step down before construction begins. “I may have just saved a few careers with that advice.”

Elkind also mentioned backlash against rail, from anti-transit Reagan Republicans to the Bus Riders Union lawsuit arguing that rail served rich commuters to the detriment of transit-dependent bus riders.

He traced the shifting landscape of fundraising, from the first failed effort to pass a sales tax measure, through several successful measures that passed with slight majorities before the 2/3 vote requirement was in place, to Mayor Villaraigosa’s successful championing of Measure R, with slightly more than 2/3 vote.

Elkind’s lessons for transit planners include: don’t try to build a line through any area with more than 50% home ownership. The Pasadena Gold Line was chosen in part because its route went through an area with a high proportion of rental units, he said.

Elkin recommended when you build rail, locate it where there is density. If the density doesn’t yet exist, it has to be allowed, or you won’t get the ridership you need. “It’s tough, with local control over land use, and when locals don’t have much incentive to see more density around rail,” he said. “But why should the region pay for a regional rail system when local jurisdictions won’t allow density to be built around stations?”

That route along the most heavily populated corridor in the Western US, Wilshire Boulevard? “The purple line is just around the corner,” he said. “By 2036 you’ll be able to get to Westwood.”

Marty Wachs, professor emeritus of city planning at UCLA and UC Berkeley, retired senior researcher in the Transportation, Space and Technology Program at RAND, and author of numerous articles and books about transportation, was invited to discuss Elkind’s book. He brought the evening to a sobering conclusion with some hard questions about the value of rail in Los Angeles.

Elkind’s book, he said, made it clear that planning and engineering have much less influence on the shape of rail than politics. “It made me worry about the irrelevance of analysis and of what we do at the university,” he said.

Then he asked, “Is rail in L.A. a success or a failure? I don’t know the answer. Certainly it’s overly expensive, it doesn’t stop in the right places, it’s poorly designed. Certainly it offers transit options that didn’t exist before.”

He broke down five criteria for measuring success, four of which were used to bolster the ballot arguments for the sales tax measures that made the system possible.

  • Ridership: “Is 370,000 riders a day a success? One bus line along Wilshire carries 2/3 as many people every day for much less money.”
  • Cost: “What is striking is the pride of elected officials in how much money they were able to obtain and spend on this system,” he said. “Other people refer to it as pork. Would people be more mobile at lower cost if we’d built bus lines instead of rail?”
  • Air pollution: Air quality has dramatically improved, but mostly due to lower carbon fuels and clean engines, not to rail.
  • Congestion: LA has more vehicle miles traveled today than it did thirty years ago. Does anyone notice less traffic?
  • Economic Development: The downtown corporate interests who pushed for rail, arguing it would improve LA’s economic development, have all been sold to other companies that are not headquartered in LA. Today, there are no Fortune 500 companies in downtown.
  • Equity: “We have a long history of transferring money from the poor to the rich via transit,” he said, pointing out that the sales taxes that fund the system are regressive since everyone pays the same percentage no matter their ability to pay. “So the low-income woman next to me on the train is paying for my free parking with her sales taxes,” he said.

Elkind later offered a response to Wachs’ comments on his blog. Twice. He largely agrees with Wachs but points out that “it behooves us to help make sure the verdict [on rail], when it ultimately comes, is a good one.”

  • BuildingLosAngeles

    There are two Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Downtown Los Angeles. CBRE is based out of 400 S. Hope Street and AECOM’s corporate office is in City National Plaza.

  • MaxUtil

    I’m not sure how much you can ascribe downtown’s revival to rail, but saying downtown hasn’t seen a revival based on the number of Fortune 500 companies located there just seems nonsensical.

    The congestion argument also seems bizarre. It’s not like the population of LA hasn’t changed in the last 30 years either. And when you consider recent indications that per capita miles driven are either down or rising way below previous rates I think you could argue this one FOR rail’s success.

    Cost is probably the strongest argument against rail. However, it’s not like there was a pot of money just sitting around and we decided to waste it on pricey rail. There are a lot of political, social, and practical reasons why a major BRT system would not have been funded or built. And the one BRT line that did get built is already at capacity that could only be improved if it was switched to rail.

    There’s plenty to criticize about the way rail was planned and built in LA, but Wach’s criticism is pretty weak.

  • traal

    “But why should the region pay for a regional rail system when local jurisdictions won’t allow density to be built around stations?”

    Let’s talk about why local jurisdictions won’t allow density. It seems counter-intuitive at first, because dense development brings much more tax revenue than sprawl without costing more per dwelling unit in infrastructure and city services, so wouldn’t local jurisdictions jump at the chance at more revenue?

    Yes they would, but each neighborhood gets only a small portion of tax revenue generated within the neighborhood. The rest is shared with all the other neighborhoods in the city.

    To make it worse, the neighborhood has to pay the costs of density: traffic, crime, litter, noise, and so on.

    So the neighborhood has to pay 100% of the cost of density but gets back only a small portion of the (tax revenue) benefit. Does this sound like a good plan to you?

    So the first thing we need to do is make the neighborhoods more self-sufficient in order to give them the proper incentive to make wise financial choices. Then they’ll start begging for more density.

  • Matt

    Wach’s arguments are incorrect. Wilshire Blvd. busses get around 60k riders per day, no where near the 240k he cites. Just plain wrong info he is spewing.

  • calwatch

    UC Transportation Center has always been skeptical of rail projects – they also bashed BART for not successfully changing Contra Costa development patterns and becoming an expensive parking lot shuttle.

    Wachs is more for the stick to reduce congestion and air pollution:,0,7456335.story?page=2#axzz2vuffCuiG By basically implementing a congestion tax of busy areas, you eliminate congestion. He is right that it works 100% of the time. Unfortunately, in a democracy as diverse as the United States, it also gets shut down quite easily. I can only imagine how many hours John Kobylt would spend on the radio to 1.2 million like minded listeners if his beloved 405 freeway had a congestion tax on it.

    There was an Atlantic Cities article a while back about how Americans are always looking at carrots and not sticks. Quite frankly, converting Wilshire Boulevard to a two lane in each direction (local traffic only perhaps, with strategically placed one block sections of bus only streets) busway would be a lot cheaper than a train. Since it is a busway you could operate buses at 35 mph, with express buses like the old 920 averaging 30 mph even with stops (same as a subway) due to signal priority and lack of traffic. It would require no eminent domain nor tunneling. It is also politically impossible since all of those Wilshire cars are now on Olympic, Santa Monica, and Pico.

    For whatever reason, no one has created a sales tax measure in California to solely fund operating costs for transit. Likely, any operations tax would get gobbled up quickly in salaries, benefits, and pensions and not improve service to the level that it would otherwise ordinarily fund.

  • Nathanael

    Wachs is just making up false numbers, as Matt noted. Who’s paying him to attack rail?

  • Nathanael

    Yeah, turns out that on *really busy corridors* buses cost more than rail overall, while providing worse results. The Orange Lie is a pity; would have been a good light rail line.

  • calwatch

    From Rand’s own study Wachs and his co-authors indicate that Wilshire gets about 100,000 boardings a day. (book page 127) If you look at the Purple Line EIR the number of new boardings generated at the stations is about 50,000. The FTA also called the Wilshire subway a “low” effectiveness rating, although this is based on conventional travel models and not the increase in development that would occur if a subway was built.

  • LAifer

    Ironically, Marty Wachs appears several times in Elkind’s book, nearly always as the attacker of rail in Los Angeles (typically making arguments against previous efforts to pass ballot measures in favor of rail funding). It appears that (a) he’s never changed his mind in 30+ years and (b) he might have been a bit offended at how he is characterized in the book.

    Regardless, Wachs’ argument that LA is still congested (therefore, rail is a failure) is a bunch of crap. NYC is one of the most congested American cities, but does anyone want to even guess at how congested it would be WITHOUT its subway system? Same goes for San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. Congestion does not equal inefficiency of alternatives to vehicles, and that a retired professor in transportation studies either doesn’t understand that or want to acknowledge it publicly is telling. This also goes for the air pollution argument. Consider the 370,000 individuals who instead of being on the train would instead be in single-occupant vehicles, turning what mess of our freeways already exists into perpetual gridlock. Now try and tell me that air pollution isn’t a consideration.

    As for downtown Los Angeles, you would not see the kind of building boom in the central city if there weren’t alternatives to single-occupant vehicular travel. Period. LA Live? South Park? One Wilshire? Grand Park? These *may* have come about without rail, but they certainly would be challenged to have the same kind of success they’ve seen without thousands upon thousands of visitors being able to easily get to and from them using what rail does exist here.

    On the point about equity, give me a big ol’ break. What does he think of the massive subsidy to roads and oil interests? Why does Beverly Hills so abhor the very thought of a rail line passing through their city limits? This is transportation economics, pure and simple. Vehicles and the privilege of owning one have LONG been a status symbol and directly associated with one’s economic advancement, here and across the world. Still are. To claim that somehow because we all pay a little more on a regressive tax somehow makes TRANSIT inequitable is a laughable argument when you consider the long-standing inequity that reliance on vehicles has perpetuated in this country for decades.

    As for cost, has anyone considered the enormity of cost not only for the actual construction of the freeway roadways and bridges but for the destruction it wreaked on once whole neighborhoods? Angeleno Heights is a shell of its former self. Echo Park is split in two. East Hollywood has a giant line cutting through it. Neighborhoods in the SF Valley are priced by views (i.e. hills) and access to freeways. Never mind the air and noise pollution these freeways produce every minute of every day, leading to sharply increased negative health and other impacts within their immediate vicinity. Yeah, let’s talk about cost. Imagine if instead of trains we’d built more roads to accommodate those 370,000 people every day. Instead of a single train carrying a couple hundred passengers going past your home every 10 minutes, you have a couple hundred cars going by and polluting up your home every day of the year. Yeah, let’s talk about cost Marty.

    It’s too bad that Marty Wachs has had as much influence as he has had in the public sphere – killing good ideas and bemoaning those that get implemented when it comes to public transport that is finally moving Los Angeles into the 21st century. Good riddance and retire for good already.

  • Peter Hofer

    I think you’re missing Wachs’ point. He isn’t anti-transit. He’s saying transit is more than trains, and there are smarter, better ways to use transportation dollars to move people around. It’s not as though 370,000 people will take the train or drive single occupancy vehicles—transportation demand is more complicated than that.

    Sure, some people with outdated ideas about transit might never take it if it’s not a train. So what? Why should we spend billions to appeal to this marginal group?

    On equity—yes, cars are subsidized, and transit should be, too. But should those subsidies be spent on big, expensive rail projects that sap operating funds from a much larger, bus system that carries more riders? Wouldn’t those funds go much farther if they were spend on improving the bus system and other transportation programs? I think Wachs argues this quite convincingly.

  • LAifer

    Good point, Peter. And as pointed out in Railtown, for all Metro’s years of efforts to expand bus while under the Bus Riders Union court-order injunction, including the addition of hundreds of new buses, rapid lines, and keeping passenger-loads below a ridiculously low threshold, the number of passengers on Metro’s buses has barely nudged up. Contrast that with the rail system which is seeing substantial growth even on the older subway line. That said, Metro’s bus system is an important investment, and it’ll be interesting to see how/if the Wilshire BRT impacts ridership on that line.

  • Mark Mallare

    As far as wellbeing, I enjoy riding rail rather than bus or rapid bus. The stations are much nicer especially on rainy days. Also, I am a daily bike commuter, so I can bring my bike on board. Only 2-3 bikes fit on a bus, and I see stranded riders who are left behind at bus stops.

  • Emotion is often a strong factor which academics don’t take into account. The idea of a rail system engendered enthusiasm, which is what the officials were reacting to. Also implementing the sort of enhanced bus service Wachs touts isn’t easy as the history of the bus lanes along Wilshire proves. Experts can have biases despite offering opinions burnished with credentials and statistics. I am hoping the sbX and Wilshire lanes help show what bus service can do. But in fact there are limits to what buses can achieve and rail in high demand corridors is the better option. Even the Curitiba system has limits.

  • Wanderer

    The key thing to understand in the bus-rail discussion is that even after all the present rail lines are completed, a huge fraction of transit passengers will still be on the bus. I’m guessing there will be a roughly 50-50 divide, compared to the current situation where about 75% of Metro passengers are on the bus (not even counting the bus passengers from the muni lines). There is neither enough money nor enough space to serve every major corridor with a rail line. Even if it were possible, many corridors don’t have the ridership to justify rail even under the most optimistic assumptions. Not every corridor is like Wilshire Boulevard, or even like Downtown LA-Long Beach, where trains pull in strong ridership.

    So to be serious about transit is to be serious about making the bus system work as well as possible. It needs to be fast, it needs to be frequent, it needs to be comfortable, it needs to be comprehensive. It can be all those things, these characteristics are found on various bus lines in LA and elsewhere. The bus needs priority on the roads–buses can carry the most people along a given stretch of roadway (it some places they already do), so the default assumption should be that buses are the priority mode.

    Streetsblog LA folks don’t generally do this, but plenty of elected officials and activists say :”Ooh, icky bus” and that’s not going to cut it. These folks will say things like “now there will be transit on the Westside, since the Expo Line is being built.” The idea that riding the bus is mark of low social status must disppear.

    It’s an interesting academic analysis whether it was right for LA to build all the current and planned rail lines. There are still some corridors, notably into the SF Valley, where that decision needs to be made.. But the question going forward isn’t bus or rail, it’s how to best plan and operate a system that inevitably will contain both.


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